Marco Rubio is a kind of Republican both new and old. A Cuban-American first elected to serve in the Florida House of Representatives in 2000, at the age of 29, he became Speaker at age 35. Throughout his career, he has promoted a conservative philosophy of limited government. He counts former Gov. Jeb Bush as one of his most important political mentors.
Rubio, the father of four children, believes that the Republican party is a failing institution. Its leaders are pulling it away from representing a genuine center-right voice of opposition to Democrats’ plans for an ever-expanding role for government.
Republicans in Washington were thrilled last week to learn that moderate Florida Republican governor Charlie Crist is running to replace retiring Republican senator Mel Martinez. They believe the popular governor is a lock to keep the seat in GOP hands.
But Rubio is running as a conservative underdog against Crist in the primary. He says it is not because there is no room for moderates in the party, but rather because Crist, in Florida, has pulled the party in the wrong direction at a time when Americans need a clear alternative to President Obama’s agenda.
Rubio sat down with National Review Online earlier this week to discuss his candidacy and the problems the Republican party is facing.
DAVID FREDDOSO: Charlie Crist is a popular guy in Florida. He’s also popular among Republicans. Are you Don Quixote for taking him on?
MARCO RUBIO: Elections are about choices and about giving people clear alternatives. I have strong and deeply held convictions about what the United States should be about. I have strong beliefs about what the role of the Republican party should be in the political debate in America. I don’t think that’s being reflected by our leadership at the national level. I don’t believe it’s being reflected by our leadership at the state level, in some respects. And, as a result, I want to run for the U.S. Senate, because I don’t think that the voice our party should be is being offered by the Republican party at this moment.
FREDDOSO: How are they failing?
RUBIO: Two things. There’s one group of Republicans who feel our slogan should be, “If you can’t beat them, join them.” That, in essence, it’s too hard to take on this expansion of government, this overreliance on government to grow our economy and create jobs. And so what we should do is just be more like the Democrats. Another group of Republicans believes that we should basically be the party of opposition without any ideas in return — that all we have to offer is ideology, but without any new ideas behind the ideology.
I think both sides of that debate are wrong. We are a party that should have a very clear vision about government’s role in our economy and government’s role in our country, and we should back that up with specific solutions for the future. That’s what I’ve built my career on, and that’s what our candidacy should be about.
FREDDOSO: Give me an example of that, showing a contrast between yourself and Governor Crist.
RUBIO: Quite frankly, you could say it’s a contrast between myself and the direction of the national Republican movement at this moment in our history, by and large, especially here in Washington, D.C. One example is term limits — we should be the party of term limits. We should be the party that says it’s not natural for any human being to serve more than half his adult life in the U.S. Congress.
We should be the party of the balanced-budget amendment — of the notion that we should not spend money we do not have. We should admit once and for all that Republicans are just as guilty as Democrats . . . in spending money we don’t have.
We should be the party of tax reform. We’re constantly talking about tax cuts and their importance, but tax reform is even better. Change our system of taxation, whether it’s a Fair Tax or a Flat Tax. Boldly propose changes to our tax system so that once again we have a country where we’re not encouraging companies to shift jobs overseas — where the tax implications of creating jobs in America are not negative, the tax implications of building things in America aren’t negative.
FREDDOSO: What do you make of President Obama’s plans to change the taxation of deferred corporate income?
RUBIO: He’s dealing with a symptom rather than the cause. There’s a reason why companies move their assets overseas and do these things. Those are legal loopholes that exist because they’re trying to escape the punitive and anti-competitive nature of the American tax system. If we had a system that’s fair, there are few countries in the world people would rather do business in. . . . Our laws are stable; their contracts will be enforced here; we have a system of infrastructure that’s still superior to the rest of the world; we still produce the best college graduates in the world. So all things being equal, everyone would rather be in America doing business and headquartering their companies here.
And there’s another thing that’s really wrong with our tax system, and we’ve been complicit in it as Republicans. We’ve allowed the system grow so complicated that it benefits those people who can afford to hire lawyers and accountants to find loopholes, and lobbyists to create loopholes. And I think the Republican party stands to blame for that as well. So I think the Republican party is ripe for reform — if not from the inside out, then from the outside in.
FREDDOSO: Tell me how Charlie Crist is part of the problem — why you’re taking him on?
RUBIO: Charlie Crist is a very pleasant man. I consider him a friend. . . . My issues with him are not personal. Unlike most politics, where people think the purpose of a political debate is to destroy your opponent, and therefore they have no choice but to vote for you — that’s not how I want to run.
I do think that Charlie Crist has proven to have more confidence in the ability of government to grow the economy than I have and than Republicans should have. The evidence of that is, he campaigned statewide with Barack Obama, not just to accept the stimulus dollars, but actually in favor of passing it. Every single Republican member of the House voted against it, and yet our governor campaigned across the state in favor of it. It was one of the worst things he could ever do to my children. He’s now permanently saddled them with trillions in debt that they will work their whole life to pay off.
On environmental policy, Charlie Crist has proposed big government mandates. I think we can improve our environment and become energy independent without destroying our economy . . . with the California-style environmental restrictions that he tried to implement in Florida. The legislature obviously didn’t go along with it, but the regulations would have made us a more expensive place to do business and therefore less competitive.
On tax reform, Floridians have a right to be deeply disappointed. I proposed what I thought was a bold plan, to replace property taxes on your primary residence with a consumption tax, 30 percent of which would be paid by non-Floridians. It’s like the Fair Tax, except applied to the property tax. Of course, Crist and his supporters have said that I proposed a sales-tax increase; they ignore the big part of it, which was the tax-cut component that would have eliminated property taxes and would have been the single largest tax cut in Florida history. Florida’s economy would be much better off today if we’d done that plan. But . . . instead, we supported his cosmetic plan, called Amendment One, which no one remembers because it didn’t do anything. . . .
And finally, something that’s very important for a senator, very recently he appointed a liberal to the Florida Supreme Court, which has, for at least the next ten years, given us an activist court in Florida. He had an opportunity to appoint a majority strict-constructionist court that would follow the Constitution and interpret the law instead of creating it. Instead, for his last appointment, he chose someone who is anti-Second Amendment, someone who I think will tilt our Florida Supreme Court away from the principles we believe in. Two of his appointments were great, one was mediocre, and the last one was outrageous.
FREDDOSO: You became speaker of the Florida House at age 35, and the top-ranked Hispanic in state government. What would you point to as your biggest accomplishments as speaker?
RUBIO: We had a number — some of them defensive in nature. For example, we stopped the devastating environmental policies that Charlie Crist advocated. On the positive side, we had 52 of the ideas in our “Hundred Ideas” project become law. One of them was curriculum reform — basically bringing Florida’s curriculum into the 21st century. . . . Property taxes would have been largely ignored had we not pushed the envelope on that. And we didn’t succeed in getting our plan passed because we couldn’t get Charlie Crist or the Senate to go along with it, but I think we pushed the debate, and the Republican party was, for the first time in a long time, identified with tax reform as a driving issue for us.
There are a number of issues that people don’t necessarily identify as conservative issues per se. For example, we started the Council on the Status of Black Men and Boys, and we followed up the next year by implementing a lot of their community-based recommendations in law. We created a Children’s Zone in Liberty City, modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, which recognizes that kids who are born with five strikes against them are going to struggle no matter how much you spend on schools. . . .
I’m proud about all those things. We tried to do more, we couldn’t get the cooperation of some of the other players. . . .
FREDDOSO: You’d be succeeding Mel Martinez. How would you rate his performance as senator?
RUBIO: I would just say that Mel is a friend, someone I admire and respect. . . . There’s nothing about Mel that I’m disappointed in today. I think he’s done the best he can under the circumstances. On immigration, he voted for a package I probably would not have voted for, because I believe that we’ve got to secure the borders in our existing system first before we can even begin to have a conversation about the other elements of immigration. . . . But I have nothing but good things to say about Mel.
FREDDOSO: Why did you support Mike Huckabee in 2008?
RUBIO: Two things I like about Mike Huckabee: One was his support of the Fair Tax, which I thought was bold and innovative. Second, I thought that of all the candidates, he did the best job of connecting how the people’s social and moral well-being cannot be separated from their economic well-being. . . .
FREDDOSO: How is President Obama doing?
RUBIO: Most of the American people want him to succeed. He’s the pilot of the airplane. I may not like the pilot; I may not like what the pilot stands for; but I don’t want the pilot to get sick in mid-flight, because the fate of our country is in his hands. Americans don’t want him to be a failure because then our country fails. . . . But I think Barack Obama is of the belief, as are many of our fellow Americans, that government creates jobs, and that the president and the Senate and the Congress are the most important people in our country. I think the most important people in our country are people whose names we don’t even know — small businessmen who create new jobs every day, who get up early and work long hours every day and create jobs. Those are the folks we should be empowering, they’re the ones who are going to lead us out of this recession.
So there’s a fundamental ideological difference between him and me. . . .
FREDDOSO: What do you make of President Obama’s move on Cuba?
RUBIO: Lifting the travel ban will do nothing to bring freedom and democracy to the people of Cuba.
FREDDOSO: Do you think it’s counterproductive?
RUBIO: I believe it is. I’m not going to criticize anyone who wants to go visit a family member or a relative they haven’t seen in years. Even the exile community understands that. But unfortunately, unrestricted travel to Cuba provides the Castro regime funds for its repressive apparatus, and I think that’s a problem. . . . This notion that unrestricted travel is going to bring freedom there is absurd. . . .
FREDDOSO: In 2002, the Senate had to vote on whether to go to war. Do we want to get involved in further occupations of foreign countries, the way we did in Iraq?
RUBIO: Obviously, the Iraq War has had the chilling effect of making us question all intelligence findings now. The standard of proof now for intelligence is now higher than it’s ever been because of the Iraq experience. I think that there is some credence, in hindsight, to the notion that the real battlefield was in Afghanistan all along. That perhaps we didn’t fully beat the Taliban. That we were perhaps overconfident in how much support we were getting from the Pakistanis with regards to fighting al-Qaeda. Perhaps we’ve diverted too much attention away from that because of the necessities of Iraq.
But understand at the same time, we were being told that Iraq was on the verge of gaining a nuclear capability. A Saddam Hussein with a nuclear capability was someone that we believed, and who Hillary Clinton believed, and who a vast majority of the Democratic leaders believed, would share that technology with terrorists who would then use it against this country. So it’s impossible to sit here and give a fair analysis in hindsight. . . .
FREDDOSO: Should Republican senators filibuster if President Obama appoints a far-left Supreme Court nominee?
RUBIO: Let me say that whatever someone’s personal beliefs are is largely irrelevant. What matters is what kind of judge they’ll be. And any justice who believes that their role is to make law rather than to interpret it is someone [the Republicans] shouldn’t support, and they should use all the means at their disposal to prevent it. Supreme Court openings are rare, and the ability to influence it is rare. When you have the opportunity to do it, it is an obligation incumbent upon the Senate to ensure that our nominees are folks who are going to interpret the Constitution and respect our separation of powers. . . .
FREDDOSO: Is your race a different version of Specter-Toomey?
RUBIO: I don’t know that much about Pennsylvania. I think that if someone is a moderate, and they’re principled about their moderate views, then you can have a debate about that. That doesn’t make you a bad person. That’s fine. There’s room in the Republican party for all kinds of different points of view. But that’s not what the debate is about — it’s not about whether there’s room in the Republican party for Charlie Crist. The debate is about whether the Republican party should be what Charlie Crist wants it to be — should Charlie Crist’s voice be the predominant voice in the Republican party? That’s what this debate is about. I think that the vast majority of Americans and the vast majority of Floridians — and the overwhelming majority of Republicans — want their party to be an authentic center-right movement. And I’m going to give them the opportunity to vote for someone who is authentically center-right on issue after issue.